It started with a hot dog and a pair of rollerblades. At thirteen years old my version of being a reckless adolescent involved skidding down Broadway on a Saturday afternoon with my best friend, dodging pedestrians while munching on a Gray’s Papaya hot dog.
The rollerblades have long since been abandoned — as has my taste for Gray’s Papaya, along with other mystery meats — but what remains is my love of eating and walking, at the same time and hopefully with few accidents. Like many favored pastimes, it is difficult to pinpoint its exact appeal. All I know is that it brings together two of my favorite diversions: food and mindless urban wandering. This is not an activity to be undertaken in just any city. It requires a place where you can order any meal to-go, a place where food is shoved into mouths absolutely anywhere and at any time, a place where public eating knows no bounds — the smellier, the runnier and more elaborate, the better. On the crowded streets, eating while walking becomes a kind of sidewalk ballet. And no city is more conducive to this dance than New York, where eat-walking is not only normal, but encouraged. And I am a high achiever.
It was a seminal year. Eighth graders were let loose from school for a precious forty-five-minute lunch break and we proclaimed our freedom by walking loudly down the streets of Upper Manhattan in a giggling adolescent cloud while eating bagels laden with mortar-grade slabs of cream cheese. Clearly rebellion was not our particular forte. I soon found that muffins, tacos, burritos, sandwiches and even pizza, with enough napkins, could all be handled while walking with limited calamity. As I grew, my companions in urban meanderings matured along with me: pork dumplings in Chinatown, greasy spanakopita in Astoria, oversized falafel in the Village. I eventually graduated to sushi but it quickly became clear that soy sauce required far more coordination than I was capable of.
I have always felt that walking while eating is one of the highest forms of respect you can pay to a food and to a city, and to my city in particular. Tuck into that tub of chicken wings with hot sauce, bite into that impossibly juicy burger, devour that fully-loaded pizza as you walk down the street like it’s your last meal — nobody cares. Some call this bad manners. I call this freedom. But historically, it was not always a matter of choice.
In the suffocating tenements that were home to New York’s immigrants for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, multiple families were crammed into a single apartment and dozens would share one kitchen. In such close quarters there was effectively no room to eat. Meals were far better enjoyed outside, and often on the go. Andrew F. Smith, author of “New York: A Food Biography,” says that when we eat while walking, we are engaging in a historic New York pastime going back hundreds of years.
“Pizza was sold as take-out food right out of the doors of tiny bakeries. You’d flip over the sides so it wouldn’t drip, and eat it as you go to work for breakfast,” Smith says. The current popularity of street food – Smith estimates that New Yorkers enjoy about 3,000 street food vendors these days – is in many ways a return to the city’s culinary past and a natural response to limited money and space. People across the world have used the street as a public dining room for as long as there have been streets. But in New York, where fast food is considered too slow, eating and walking are co-activities that perfectly compliment the mathematical equation that fuels the city: time = money. Not everyone practices this kind of arithmetic.
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When I was nine years old, my mother towed me around Paris for two weeks on a budget that left room for Rodin sculpture viewing, a fair amount of onion soup eating and not much else. All my mother and I wanted come lunchtime was a damn sandwich to go. The French were not very obliging. Lunch was to be eaten at a table over the course of an hour or so with fixed attention and proper cutlery. A decade later I returned as a college student for a year that was largely spent traveling, in between which I would attend classes and attempt to write papers on the French Surrealists with the crutch of a heavily worn dictionary.
Mostly though, I stomped around the great cities of Europe, specializing in getting lost. I would start in the morning and walk all day, stumbling across a famous church here, an impressive monument there and untangling how one neighborhood flowed into the next. But getting food to go was a challenge. Currywurst in Vienna, gelato in Florence, kebabs in London — the options were limited and I was only vaguely aware of how gauche it was to walk down the street while snacking on oily chunks of meat. By this time Paris was experiencing the devastating arrival of le sandwich (on baguettes, naturally). They were sold everywhere — at little kiosks, and stacked neatly in bakery windows with Camembert and charcuterie draping off the sides. They were even thoughtfully wrapped for your portable gastronomic needs. Still, I did not see Parisians walking down the street eating sandwiches like I did. If you had to eat outside you were to sit yourself down on the steps of some great cathedral and nosh away.
The Gallic reverence for food is a bit shattering to the efficiency-minded. Put simply: “Food is good. Eating is not a matter of ingesting calories.” So says André Gayot, a food critic, president of Gayot.com and publisher of the Gayot guidebooks. He was one of the French critics who attempted to breathe new life into the country’s cuisine in the 1960s through coining and promoting nouvelle cuisine, a lighter, stripped-down approach to classic cooking. Despite modern influences on culinary traditions, there remains a sense of celebration at French meals. “We don’t like to eat and run,” says Gayot. “Work is one thing, and eating is another. It is a moment of reflection and socializing, and a moment of pleasure, like reading a good book or listening to music you like. Even with a busy life, people want to keep this tradition.”
I put the New York counter-tradition to another Parisian, Clotilde Dusoulier, the food writer behind Chocolate & Zucchini: “Eating in a rush gives me a belly ache. That doesn’t feel like a very serene experience,” she says. Point taken. “The New York eating-on-the-go habit would be seen by the French as a misguided attempt to make the most out of your time,” Dusoulier continues. “Even if you take half an hour to rest and recharge, it’s a better investment of your time.”
The essential French culinary equation is one in which respect for food equals respect for yourself. Like so many things French, it is a product of the Revolution. Factory workers demanded a one-hour lunch break so they would not have to eat by their machines. “Eating in a civilized way sets us apart from animals. It’s something the French take seriously, no matter what it is — even a crappy sandwich,” says Dusoulier. French workers are still untethered to their machines. People seldom eat at their desks and French companies above a certain size are required to provide an office fridge, microwave, and a designated space for eating.
Gastronomical reverence aside, animalistic habits are making some inroads in Paris. On my most recent visit earlier this year, I discovered that Parisians had discovered the bagel. I did not attempt to try one, mostly out of deference to the French, but also to every American baker who has ever attempted a croissant, bless their hearts. The sandwich has so deeply infiltrated lunchtime cuisine in Paris that bagels are this very moment being subjected to supporting multiple kinds of jambon and sacrilegious leafy greens, to the horror of Nova lox everywhere. Back in New York we have been paying equal respect to tradition for years by giving croissants the same treatment. Despite our culinary differences, it seems that American and French lunch-goers share a common desperation for new sandwich bread. And it’s having an effect. I spied a few efficient Parisian souls eating sandwiches while marching down cobblestoned streets.
With such culinary influences looming, France has taken action. In 2010 France’s prized multi-course meal was designated a “world intangible heritage” by UNESCO — a symbol of protection from the menace of the sandwich and other non-Gallic foods. Other cultures impose more subtle culinary regulations. On a recent trip to Japan I learned that no amount of hallowed steps make it acceptable to even drink in public. A soda must be downed while cozying up to the sidewalk vending machine from which it emerged. (Meanwhile in Hungary, sidewalk liquid lunches are the local specialty. But that’s a different story.)
For most New Yorkers, eat-walking is an irresistible trifecta of efficiency: nourishment, exercise and transportation. But for me, it has an opposite appeal. I don’t strive for French gastronomic serenity, but rather for a certain clarity that comes with engaging multiple senses at once. I begin to notice things when I slow my gait so as not to choke on a steaming samosa. Sheathed in the act of eating, the city both washes over me and flows through me. With the privilege of distance, scents become sharper, overheard conversations somehow become more profound, people’s outfits more interesting, the shiny new glass monolith more elegant and the stew of pedestrians more harmonious. As is the New York way, no one notices the trail of peas and potatoes in my wake. The streets of New York have always been bastions of eccentric indulgences. I weave through a thin crowd wearing a curried smile. I am home.
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Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer living in Brooklyn. She is a member of the Meerkat Media Collective, which recently completed “Brasslands,” a feature documentary about Balkan brass music.